How Barbados ditched the Queen

Barbados took the plunge and ditched the British monarchy two years ago. Has anything really changed since? Amy Hall reports.

Playing dominoes in central Bridgetown on  15 November 2021, a couple of weeks before the ceremony to swear in Sandra Mason as president. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES
Playing dominoes in central Bridgetown on 15 November 2021, a couple of weeks before the ceremony to swear in Sandra Mason as president. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

If you’re looking for a dominoes game in the middle of Bridgetown, it’s worth trying your luck at the tables in Golden Square Freedom Park. Come Friday night, things get livelier as people finish work and shoot the breeze. As the sun goes down, the soundtrack in this part of the park is provided by the slamming of dominoes and tiny whistling frogs – a constant of night-time in Barbados.

It was here, more than three quarters of a century ago, that trade unionist Clement Payne held rousing meetings, spearheading resistance to the white planter class and demanding better working conditions.

Of course, the colonial government had Trinidad-born Payne marked, and he was deported in July 1937. For four days the people rioted, and it’s thought that this uprising, as well as the work of Payne and his comrades, was crucial in bringing reform.

With its artworks celebrating the island’s culture and marking some of the key moments in its history, the park is a statement of a new Barbados. It was officially opened in November 2021, on the eve of the country becoming a republic.

This was a significant moment. A Caribbean country hadn’t done this since Dominica became a republic upon gaining independence in 1978. Of all the countries to have had the British monarch as head of state, Mauritius was the last state to ditch the Queen in 1992.

Now other nations look set to follow suit. Jamaica has started a constitutional reform process with the republic as its goal and the idea has also been mooted in Belize and Grenada. But, unlike Barbados, many would require a referendum to allow the change. When the British monarchy was put to the vote in Australia in 1999 and St Vincent and the Grenadines in 2009, citizens decided to maintain the status quo.

Outdated concept

Although Barbados became independent in 1966, the late Queen Elizabeth II remained head of state as the island became a constitutional monarchy, even if her role was seen as largely ceremonial. Now it is a republic, Sandra Mason, the last governor-general – the royal family’s appointed representative – has become president. She maintains her role of giving assent to bills passed by legislators – which she previously carried out on behalf of the Queen.

When you’ve got the queen of England as your head of state you get the idea that this paternalistic system implies that they will protect you, and in fact that’s not true

‘The reality is that every law was passed in the name of the British monarch,’ explains Cynthia Barrow-Giles, a professor in constitutional governance and politics at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados. ‘It was the continuation of the British presence in the political affairs of a sovereign nation.’

Suleiman Bulbulia, who was a member of the republican status transition advisory committee in Barbados and is now a member of the Constitutional Reform Commission, concurs. ‘I think the monarchy is long outdated,’ he says. ‘It probably suits England but not anywhere else.’

Not everyone in England, I remind him. He laughs. ‘I think in the psyche of Barbados we had moved past that attachment to our former colonizer into a realm where we make our own destiny. It’s time now to have a Barbadian as head of our state. ’

Has anything changed for Barbadians day-to-day? Perhaps not on a practical level, says Bulbulia, but the transition is essential if the country is to see more fundamental change. ‘We went to sleep on 29 November 2021 and woke up on 30 November, and nothing had changed,’ he adds. ‘But I think it’s all about how Barbadians view themselves, and that is a process within itself.’

Before the transition was completed, a poll found a varied reaction among the country’s citizens. One in three Barbadians were supportive, but a similar proportion weren’t bothered whether the island became a republic or not.

One taxi driver tells me that people he spoke to at the time were more vexed about whether or not pop star Rihanna should have been appointed a national hero (she was).

But perhaps the strongest backlash was to the government’s attempts to rename the country’s independence day on 30 November as Barbados National Day, to incorporate the transition to a republic. This proved to be one step too far for Barbadians, and the government was forced to backtrack days later.

Today, much of this indifference seems to remain among the people I speak to on the streets of Bridgetown. Most shrug and say they didn’t have an opinion on the matter – or at least not one they wanted to share. I have a drink with Shawn and François outside a rum shop near the parliament building, and ask them what they think about their country’s republic status. ‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ says Shawn. ‘We can’t change it. We can’t change anything – we’re not the government.’

 Dismantling the Colonial Gaze’. As a collective, the artists  responded to ‘Barbados cotton pickers’, postcard from the early 20th century with a series of three photographs in which they all appear. ‘We took a more powerful stance – we flipped the whole image on its head,’ says Jalisa Marshall. This piece, ‘FAFO’, is a nod to conversations that Black Bajans have had online around race and privilege. BARBADOS MUSEUM & HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION/  KNIGHT & CO. RISÉE CHADERTON-CHARLES, JALISA MARSHALL, JOY MAYNARD, AMBER NEWTON AND KIA REDMAN.
A piece from ‘LOOKA: Dismantling the Colonial Gaze’ exhibition, in which five women artists respond to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society’s collection of historic postcards – in this case the ‘Barbados cotton pickers’ postcard from the early 20th century. ‘We took a more powerful stance – we flipped the whole image on its head,’ says Jalisa Marshall. This piece, ‘FAFO’, is a nod to conversations that Black Bajans have had online around race and privilege. BARBADOS MUSEUM & HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION/KNIGHT & CO., RISÉE CHADERTON-CHARLES, JALISA MARSHALL, JOY MAYNARD, AMBER NEWTON AND KIA REDMAN

Always on the cards

So how did Barbados come to do something so rare, without much public clamour? It didn’t come from nowhere. The country’s first prime minister, Errol Barrow, warned that Barbados should not ‘loiter on colonial premises’, and the prospect of a republic has figured in Barbados’s three major constitutional reform exercises since independence. In 2005, Barbados legislated for a referendum on scrapping the monarchy, but this never happened.

‘In many countries where you have that kind of significant political development taking place, there has been something that has triggered it,’ says Barrow-Giles. ‘In the case of Barbados, there was no trigger. Occasionally you would get a little flash and maybe some panel discussion, and that’s what it was, an academic exercise.’

When Mia Mottley was elected Prime Minister in May 2018, her Barbados Labour Party (BLP) won the biggest mandate in the island’s history, with an astonishing 73 per cent of the popular vote. The issue of the monarchy had not figured prominently in an election campaign dominated by economic issues and falling living standards, but two years later it was included in her party’s programme for government. Just over a year after that, the transition was complete.

‘There were people who were concerned that the transition was made without – and we have to be honest – any real public consultation on the matter,’ says Barrow-Giles. But the constitutional expert recalls conversations with Mottley about the republic ‘many moons ago’. She says: ‘It isn’t something I believe that she thought about overnight. It was very obvious that she was a person that would [act] when the opportunity arose for her to take that leap.’

For Bulbulia, there is a need ‘to really engage the people as to what you’re doing and what it means to become a republic’. He says that Covid-19 limited the committee’s possibilities for public consultation, and they were also constrained by a tight schedule. He sees the continuing constitutional reform process as part of strengthening citizen engagement. It involves in-person and online consultations, including with Barbadians living abroad in places like the US and Canada.

The British replicated the Barbados slave plantation model across the Caribbean

Was the announcement eased by the wider political context? It came not long after worldwide uprisings against structural racism and police violence following the murder of George Floyd in the US. Barbados, which had its own Black Lives Matter protests, also had public discussions about the need to confront its position as a former colony.

A petition calling for the removal of a bronze statue of British naval vice admiral Horatio Nelson, a defender of slavery, gained more than 10,000 signatures. The monument, which stood in National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, was taken down in a ceremony weeks before Barbados became a republic.

‘When you’ve got the queen of England as your head of state you get the idea that this paternalistic system implies that they will protect you, and in fact that’s not true,’ says Robert Goddard, a senior lecturer at Emory University in the US. ‘You have this thing that you’re invested in, this symbolic regime, that when push comes to shove is empty.’

Whispers of the past

‘The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,’ said Mason in a speech, written by Mottley, to announce the transition to a republic. But what does it look like to leave behind a past that has entirely shaped the present, and still has a material impact on the lives of Barbados’ 282,000 citizens?

Just outside of Bridgetown lies Newton Enslaved Burial Ground, the final resting place of nearly 600 people who were forced to work on the plantation here. Owned by the English enslaver Samuel Newton, it operated as a labour camp for 300 to 400 enslaved people at a time.

Today the burial ground is a peaceful reminder of the violence which once marred this spot. Cane fields still surround it and the factory still stands. The wind rushes through the trees, telling the tales of those who came before.

The first English ship arrived in Barbados in 1625. According to information in the national museum, there was no sign of the Indigenous people who would have previously lived on the island. By 1665, much of the island’s forests had been cleared for cultivation, the island’s flat landscape acting as a blank canvas for the new land-owning class.

Indentured servants and prisoners initially laboured over coffee, cotton and indigo, but in 1637 a few plantation owners decided to start growing sugar cane. Between 1627 to 1807 an estimated 387,000 enslaved Africans were shipped to the island: the high mortality rate required a constant stream to keep the operation going. They were forced to work in shifts around the clock on the industrial-scale production.

The British replicated the Barbados slave plantation model across the Caribbean. The island’s ‘slave code’ – an Act passed in 1661 classifying enslaved people as property – would be the basis for similar codes elsewhere, including Jamaica and South Carolina.

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The soil remembers

The slave trade also devoured the land. ‘The place looks pretty, but the scars are still there,’ Mahmood Patel tells me as we walk around Coco Hill Forest which is towards the East Coast in St Joseph. Patel, who also runs a hotel on the South Coast, started this regenerative agroforestry project in 2014, which welcomes tourists and hikers to explore its trails. The dramatic erosion is clear to see. Vast chunks of the landscape seem to be missing.

Beneath the surface, Patel explains, the soil has been degraded by hundreds of years of cane production. ‘This area could be our food basket,’ he says. ‘But a lot of Barbados land not as fertile as it should be, so you really can’t grow really good quality food.’ He explains that vital minerals such as potassium and magnesium were lost. ‘You have to do a lot of regenerative work, so that’s what we do here.’

The impact can also still be seen in how the island manages its food supply. ‘You have 300 years of only exporting one crop and then you export that as a primary product, and then you import everything else,’ says Patel.

Geneva Oliverie, a Development Specialist with the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), agrees. ‘Our countries got used to producing one set of things in a monoculture, whether it be bananas, sugar cane or something else. It’s a model from colonialism that persists today. In this case, we have been unable to diversify our export product. We were outside production sites for larger economies… It wasn’t about feeding who was living here.’

She also points to the fact that Barbados is one of the world’s most water-scarce countries. ‘There are a lot of persons on the island who do not get water every day. But the tourism areas will get water all the time. It’s always the locals who stand to fall short.’

While there have been some efforts to diversify agriculture since the decline of sugar production in the 1950s, Barbados is a net importer of food. The high cost of living and a lack of access to nutritious food has contributed to the island’s health problems. ‘Britain left behind a pandemic of chronic diseases. The hypertension, the diabetic pandemic collectively have constituted a threat to the existence of Caribbean society,’ Barbadian historian and Vice Chancellor of the UWI, Hilary Beckles, said in 2020.

Over on the East Coast, the Slow Food Soup Drive team are busy cooking up a storm. Funded through donations, volunteers make over 160 portions of soup three times a week, and deliver it to people in need all around the island. There is always a vegetarian, low-sodium soup on offer, and today the meat option is beef.

Slow Food Barbados’ main focus had been running a school gardening programme. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit they were forced to take a new approach. ‘We reached out to one of the schools in our programme, and the principal there told us that her biggest concern was that the kids who had been on the breakfast programme would now not get any meals for the day,’ explains Julie Hooper McNeel, the director for Slow Food Barbados, as we sit down to chop carrots and okra.

Farmers who would usually provide produce to cruise ships or hotels suddenly had spare supplies. With chefs out of work, a group got together to cook at a local restaurant, out of use thanks to lockdown. When the restaurant re-opened, they moved here to Walkers Reserve, a nature reserve on the site of a near exhausted sand quarry.

At its height, the soup drive was making over 300 portions each day. But even after lockdowns eased and people went back to work, they still received referrals from churches and community groups for people who would benefit. To date, they have served over 60,000 soups.

‘We have a lot of families with a lot of children,’ says Natasha Hackett who is also helping to prepare food when I visit. ‘I think the need was always there, it just surfaced during Covid. We have kids who literally run to the car when they see us coming.’

 Dismantling the Colonial Gaze’ exhibition called ‘Not for sale’. Here, Kia Redman responds to the ‘Pottery seller’ postcard, from the early 20th century, imagining what happened moments after the historical photo was taken. ‘The Woman Formerly Known as Pottery Seller snatches back her power,’ Redman says. ‘She tears down the fictitious idealized backdrop to reveal the true reality of her life, her culture and her identity.’ BARBADOS MUSEUM & HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION/J.R.H. SEIFERT & CO. BARBADOS. KIA REDMAN
Another piece from the ‘LOOKA: Dismantling the Colonial Gaze’ exhibition called ‘Not for sale’. Here, Kia Redman responds to the ‘Pottery seller’ postcard, from the early 20th century, imagining what happened moments after the historical photo was taken. ‘The Woman Formerly Known as Pottery Seller snatches back her power,’ Redman says. ‘She tears down the fictitious idealized backdrop to reveal the true reality of her life, her culture and her identity.’ BARBADOS MUSEUM & HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION/J.R.H. SEIFERT & CO. BARBADOS. KIA REDMAN

Economic autonomy

While inequality within Barbados is an issue, the island – like so many Caribbean countries – inherited a weak economic base at independence and continues to be restricted by a global economic system developed to benefit wealthier nations.

‘We have so many issues to deal with – we come from one crisis after the other and because of the way in which we have been inserted in the global political economy we don’t have the kind of autonomy and economic autonomy that is most desirable,’ says Barrow-Giles.

Barbados is the most indebted country in the Caribbean, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 135 per cent in 2021. ‘When you have those constraints you don’t have the space to invest in education, agriculture, in the road networks and soft and hard infrastructure,’ says Oliverie.

‘When government has all this debt to repay then services to the vulnerable decrease, grants to our people decrease and so we have more to do with less money,’ says Donnah Russell, deputy general secretary of the Barbados Association of Non Governmental Organisations.

The association’s leader Marcia Brandon explains that a charity supporting cancer patients recently had their government assistance reduced. ‘That’s a stressful situation, to be finding different ways to raise money or potentially turn people away. I would like to see the debt cancelled. I have a feeling we’ve paid it over and over again. It’s time to wipe the slate clean and have some solutions to make sure you don’t get back into that debt.’

Decolonization is not only about changing a constitution. It requires an overhaul of the structures in your society

For Oliverie, the issue of debt is inextricably linked with the greatest threat faced by the region. ‘We can’t talk about climate change without debt, because we always have to be borrowing more every time a hurricane pass or every time there’s a climate hazard.’

Since she came into office, Mottley has restructured the country’s debt, as well as speaking out on the international stage about Western governments’ responsibility to provide funding to deal with the impacts of climate change.

At the UN Climate Conference in 2022 Mottley unveiled the Bridgetown Initiative calling for a new mechanism to provide climate finance and development. It proposes a shake-up of how money is loaned to and repaid by a country hit by disaster, and the creation of a new Global Climate Mitigation Trust.

Oliverie believes that climate reparations are due, but remains cautious. ‘We need to ensure that whatever we get, or however it’s dealt with, it doesn’t go straight to the heads of government because I don’t think it’s going to get down to the persons who really matter.’

Patel would like to see the debt cancelled, but believes there are also important underlying structural issues that need to be addressed for Barbados to move forwards. ‘I think we would have to then ask big questions, difficult questions about how we govern ourselves – what it is we want for our people and what we want to aspire to?’

Difficult conversations

Conversations about what it means to be Barbados as a republic, more distant from its colonizer, are ongoing and tied to the issue of race.

Although Black people make up 92 per cent of the population, those members of the white population who inherited the wealth made through slavery remain financially dominant. ‘Despite their political ascendancy in contemporary society, Black descendants remain marginalized within the wealth-management and ownership structures and cultures of the national economy,’ Beckles wrote.

At the national museum, which is housed in the former British military prison, I join a group of artists who are working with museum staff to set up a new exhibition. ‘LOOKA: Dismantling the Colonial Gaze’ is a collaborative work between five women artists in response to the Barbados Museum & Historical Society’s collection of historic postcards.

‘I think that there have been lots of conversations in Barbados around race and the position that colonialism still continues to play within our society, especially in the last few years as we’ve transitioned to a republic,’ explains co-curator Risée Chaderton-Charles.

‘You can’t create distance from something if you don’t know what the end point is.’

Bulbulia believes reparations will ‘feature heavily’ in the ‘difficult conversations’ ahead. ‘The reality is that the United Kingdom became rich on the blood, sweat and lives of Black Africans who were brought to Barbados and whose descendants are now Barbadian,’ he says. ‘We rely on tourism from the UK and people say we will hurt our tourism product [to push for reparations]. I don’t think we will.’

Barbados’s leading role

Verene Shepherd, professor emerita of history and gender studies, Mona, Jamaica, lauds Barbados and Jamaica for playing leading roles in the effort for reparations for the Caribbean. In answer to questions on Barbados, she pointed out that Mottley and Beckles both hold key roles in CARICOM’s bodies working on the initiative. ‘Every country is playing a role but I think because of the influential voice of the honourable Mia Mottley, Barbados has emerged as a big voice because she carries the issue internationally; and she’s so passionate,’ says Shepherd.

There are a lot of persons on the island who do not get water every day, but tourism areas get water all the time. It’s always the locals who stand to fall short

Barbadians have made specific calls to the descendants of enslavers, including British actor Benedict Cumberbatch and the Conservative MP Richard Drax. His ancestor James Drax was among that original group of men to start industrial sugar production in Barbados, and his family owned ships to transport enslaved people, as well as a plantation in Jamaica. The Drax Hall plantation remains under family ownership.

‘Decolonization is not only about changing a constitution,’ says Shepherd. ‘True decolonization requires an overhaul of the structures in your society. You have to ensure that a de-colonial philosophy and ideology foregrounds the changes you are trying to make constitutionally – otherwise, it will just be a paper change.’

For Brandon, the legacy of colonialism is alive and well. ‘I think we’ve inherited a lot of things that we just kept after independence,’ says Brandon. ‘People who tried to change it got some backlash. The ones who were benefiting didn’t want change, I guess because it might mean they wouldn’t be in the upper echelons any more.’

Back at the edge of Golden Square Freedom Park is a ceramic installation made up of three big formations. ‘Peltin’ Bare Big Rocks’ is inspired by the 1937 Payne rebellion, when people took to the street armed with sticks and stones, in time forcing the introduction of trade union legislation, better housing and healthcare and the right to vote. Inscribed into the side of one of the rocks is a phrase attributed to Adrian Green, which seems to sum up Barbados’ relationship with its colonial past as a young republic: ‘We c’yah fuhget caw it ain dun yet.’

This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.